iZotope’s influence as a plugins manufacturer extends beyond the music-making world, into the lands of audio repair, post-production for film and sound design for soundtracks. Despite its current repute, however, the company had its humble start in the dorm room of some students at MIT. I reached out to one of those students, now the company’s CEO, Mark Ethier, and asked some questions about iZotope’s beginnings, its products and future plans.
Thanks for taking time to speak with me Mark. Can I start off by asking about iZotope’s beginnings, and what it was like for the company in its early stages? Were there any challenges in getting things off the ground?
I was at MIT, getting my degree in music and computer science, but I always wanted to start a company, and I had some other undergraduate friends who felt similarly. So we got together and created Vinyl, which was a free product. We were really surprised at how many people liked and downloaded it. That led us to live on as little as we could during the summer after graduation, and our work led to the release of the first version of Ozone. The money from that was enough to afford food and rent, we’ve grown the company in that way ever since.
One of the biggest challenges for us were opportunities. I had no experience running a company or releasing software, so the big challenge was to learn everything as we went along, which I think made us take some unique approaches to making software. This was during the early days of the Internet, so we had to build a lot of things from scratch, like an online store, which you can just Google for today.
Were there any challenges presented to you by competing software companies in iZotope’s early days?
I think we were in a different category. There were a lot of companies making TDM plugins that ran on Digidesign hardware, like Waves, and that wasn’t where we started. We belonged to a new category of plugin manufacturers during that time.
How about now? With your company having found success, as well as many other plugin manufacturers making their way into the market, are you concerned with warding off competition?
I feel like a lot of the plugins we make are creative, like so many other products in this industry. No-one makes commodity products, which is what’s great about this industry. There’s always a complement being made to whatever product someone has created. So whether you make compressors, distortion units or flangers, everyone’s going to be a bit different, and that allows us to not be competitors, but rather provide creative outlets for customers.
It’s a rare thing for me to think that we have competitors in the field of noise reduction and audio repair because producers should a have a bunch of tools in their toolboxes. Each one can be a little better at different things, so I’ve never felt that we have to compete with others. We all do creative things, and there’s so much uniqueness in the industry that it’s more about a cool arrangement of stuff, as opposed to head-to-head competition.
Do you think iZotope and its products has benefited from the influx of music producers into today’s DIY music world, and the subsequent demand for plugins and software?
Definitely. We’ve watched this trend over the last 10 years of how more and more people have had the ability to learn how to make music, and produce high-quality results at home, upload them and sell directly to fans. That has definitely helped to drive our growth.
Among iZotope’s many products, Iris sticks out as being quite fascinating, due to its unconventional functionality. How did that come about?
Sonic State is a UK media outlet, and they had a podcast where they were talking about things, and Dave Spiers, who’s one of the creators of GForce, was a user of RX. He said “You can make a selections in RX, and that could make it into a synth“. So that podcast led us to collaborate with Dave and GForce to create Iris. The whole thing stemmed from customers taking RX, which was a repair tool, and using it for sound design, and then thinking, “How do we make this an instrument? ”
Are you happy with the overall user and industry response that you’ve seen from Iris?
Yes, definitely. It’s exciting to be able to bring something new to the instrument market. We didn’t want to create yet another model of a synthesizer. There are a lot of companies doing that. We were focused on making something new and different by taking advantage of modern technology to create something that has never been heard before.
Aside from making its own products, iZotope has also partnered with artists to co-release plugins. Can you tell us about your partnership with BT to create Stutter Edit?
Yeah, sure. BT is very creative and is one of those technologist musicians who can imagine what he wants to do with sound, and can both build things himself, and describe to other people how it should be built.
On the Stutter Edit side, he was building that for years. He had used it in his performances, and got to a point where he wanted it to be released to the world. I struck up a friendship with him years before, and he used to call me up to talk about software and things like that. So it got to a point where we both realized that we should work together to release it.
Do you feel that Stutter Edit has continued to do well for iZotope?
Yes definitely. It’s a unique product that has continued to be strong for us both in reviews and sales, because people find it be a tool that does things that no other plugin does.
Are there any plans to work with other artists to develop plugins?
We don’t have any explicit plans, but we’re open to it.
Trash 2 is one of our favorite distortion plugins. Can you tell me how that came about?
We like to take all the raw things that you can muster from algorithms and models, and pack them into interesting visual interfaces with macro control over it. We use that model across all of our products. So we thought “How do you create Ozone for distortion and sound mangling?“. That’s where Trash came from.
A lot of iZotope’s user were pleasantly surprised to hear that RX had won an Emmy. How did you and your company feel about that?
It was an amazing honor. It was one of those things where you thought “I didn’t even know you could win an Emmy for that“. At the ceremony, it was really great to hear people talking about why RX had won, and some of the fundamental changes that had happened in TV production and broadcast as a result of the product’s existence. When I looked through the list of other winners for that award, I was just blown away. To put it in perspective, YouTube also won the same award. So it was very humbling to see how useful to the industry.
One of the cool things was when they were telling a story to introduce the award, and they said “It’s not uncommon that a producer will say “That didn’t come out well. Just RX it:“” They used RX as a verb to talk about how they’ll clean up the audio later. I never would have expected that to happen when I started this company.
Whilst a lot of people consider Ozone and Alloy to be iZotope’s flagship products, RX has become quite a force in its own right in recent years, and is arguably as popular as your mix plugins. Did you ever think that RX would match Ozone and Alloy in popularity?
It’s interesting. They’re all about equal for us. RX has been really successful beyond music. You could think of Ozone and Alloy as being big on the music side, and RX has been big on the production side. So it’s not so much of a surprise for us, because we know that RX is a really useful tool that can be used in a lot of places, including music production. It’s like Photoshop for sound.
iZotope used to have photo-related products like PhotonShow, which are now discontinued. Why did the company decide to stop selling those products?
In our early days, we created some photo products, but when we released them, Steve Jobs was on the cover of Time magazine, talking about how iPhoto was what everybody needed. We were just some college graduates with no experience and said “Oh my. We can’t compete with that“. We tried to sell it, but it wasn’t really connecting with our passion and it wasn’t something we knew how to sell. So that’s why we stopped.
What’s been iZotope’s most commercially successful product thus far, and why?
Good question. Ozone and RX are our flagships, and have been the most successful. I think they’re somewhat unique in what they do. For Ozone, it’s enabled people to master their music. When it came out at first, mastering was a black art, and we tried to educate people about it.
For RX, it offers high quality processing, but also a user interface that gives people tons of visual feedback and help in getting the best sound possible. I think that’s why those products have been so successful.
You guys have a licensing initiative for your products on your website. Can you explain what that’s about and what it entails?
We’re always trying to get technology out to people, and sometimes the best way to do that is creating products for sale, and at other times we have to partner with other companies to embed the technology into their products, which we’ve done with Adobe and Sony. An example is the video game, Rock Band, from Harmonix. We weren’t going to make a competitor for Rockband, as it wouldn’t make any sense. So instead, we licensed our technology to Harmonix, and they put it into the game. So if you’re singing, our vocal processing is running on your voice.
What are are some of the future plans for iZotope?
We have another product coming out in a couple of months, and are working on some major updates for our existing products. We’re also hiring a lot of people right now. Our new employees are doing very well, and with that growth, we’re looking to make a lot more products.